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Playing the game vs playing WITH the game


Along with a large percentage of the geek world, my last few gaming months have been taken up primarily by Skyrim, the latest in the venerable Elder Scrolls series. I was personally late to elder scrolls party, starting with Oblivion despite a friends many admonitions to play Morrowind. My first character in Oblivion, when it was all said and done, had clocked over 260 hours (and that was before the Shivering Isles expansion pack).

While I had played roll playing games before, Oblivion, to me, felt like something completely new; A truly realized world that you could disappear into for hours on end in a way I never had before. By the time the expansion came out, I was already conditioned to buy anything Oblivion related (barring the horse armor of course), but before I had a chance to play it, I abruptly got bored. I had played through the entire game* with my main character, a spellsword dark elf. I had begun 3 additional play throughs as a pure-mage High Elf, a ranged Imperial thief and a heavy armor Orc tank. By this point, I was no longer playing the game but playing WITH the game. (We’ll get to what I mean in a bit.)

It would be almost a year before I feel cooled off enough to play The Shivering Isles but by that point, the next big open world from Bethesda was on the horizon and the Oblivion expansion served as a good way to stretch those RPG muscles in preparation.

Fallout 3

I never played a Fallout game before Fallout 3. I also almost didn’t play Fallout 3. The same friend who implored me to play Morrowind (who I ignored) called me up the week Fallout 3 came out:

“Are you playing Fallout yet?”
“Meh, another first person shooter? No Thanks.” (yes, I was misinformed)
“Bro, trust me. You were born in the vault, you will die in the vault. You should be playing this game.” (Thanks Brian!)

The names leveled at the game, meant to be derogatory were, to me, actually it’s greatest strength. “Oblivion with guns” was exactly what I’d been waiting for! While I certainly don’t have a problem with high fantasy, post apocalyptic wasteland is even more up my alley and I dove into Fallout 3 with great relish. But again, after putting in the requisite 200+ hours, a certain boredom set it, almost all at once.

And this was when I came up with a name for it: Fallout Fatigue.

Fallout Fatigue

There comes a moment for me whenever I play an open world game. This moment usually happens when I open the quest list, look at how much still lies before me and I think: “Holy shit, are you serious? There is no way I’m doing all that.” When this happens I usually find the main quest, make it active, complete it ASAP and call the game done. To me, this phenomenon seems to arise from the shear breadth and depth of content in a modern open world game. In most cases, you can spend 98% of your time just playing around and exploring, completely ignoring the main quest lines if you so choose. As a result, it is a very real danger that you will “master” the game before experiencing the main narrative.

It is at this point that I usually stop playing the game and begin playing WITH the game.

What is playing with the game?

Playing a game, to me, means working within what is assumed to be the “rules of the game”, in order to progress through the game. Playing WITH the game is using those rules to explore the limitations of the game world itself. As mentioned at the beginning of this post, I’m currently playing Skyrim so I’ll present an example of what I mean using that context.

My character in Skyrim is modeled after my first Oblivion character and as such, is a Dark Elf who specializes in one-handed weapons and destruction magic. But I realized early in the game that the best way to maximize my one-handed damage was to level up my smithing and enchanting skills. Being able to put 2 enchantments on a single weapon, which I smithed and improved myself was just too exciting to pass up. When I made that decision, I was playing the game.

But the closer I got to the top levels of these skills, the more I realized that I was already more powerful than I would ever need to be to complete the game. To me, this was when I began playing with the game. Rather than allow my playing of the game to take me to the top of these skills, or even abandoning these areas to level up others, I began to accelerate my goal. How fast could I get there? Exactly how powerful a weapon could I craft? I’m only two skill levels away from 100 enchanting, what other skill can I quickly level up to open up a perk to use once I get there?

But the central question in my mind as I progressed was - have I broken the game? Is playing with the game any less valid a pursuit than simply playing the game? At first I didn’t think so. But what is a game aside from an opportunity to spend some time having fun? If your definition of fun maps directly to the designer’s preferred narrative path, so be it. But if your enjoyment comes more from poking the game world itself to see what sorts of behaviors emerge, is that any less “fun”? Now that I’ve thought about it, I foresee even more replayability in these open world games than I had before. Playing with the game is a new lens through which to view the gameplay experience for me, even though I know realize I’ve been doing it for years.

*(I say “entire” meaning I completed the main quest as well as all the guild quests and what I took to be a majority of the side quests. I’m not sure one could ever truly play the entire game).